An integrated network to replace the NHS' existing N3 network has had its outline business case approved by health secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Speaking at EHI Live 2015 in Birmingham, interim programme director at the Health and Social Care Information Centre, Patrick Clark, said the decision means that the organisation can now begin to make real progress on delivering the Health and Social Care Network.

This is due to replace N3 once the NHS' contract with BT ends in March 2017. It also means that the project can move out of the 'red' rating it was issued last year by the government’s Major Projects Authority

“We are confident now that the Health and Social Care Network programme has emerged in a really strong place to not only exit N3 in timely fashion but also to deliver services that are better able to support the requirements of the health and social care sector,” Clark said.

The original contract for N3 was due to end in April 2014, but was extended by three years because no successor had been put in place.

Clark said the concept of the Health and Social Care Network emerged around this time, as the HSCIC realised that N3’s proposed replacement, N4, would not be able to support more integrated working between health and social care.

“When you look at previous successor programmes, they were focused too much on replacing what was already there,” he said. “[N3] was established to meet a set of requirements that are over ten years old. Ten years on, that model isn't working very well.”

The nature of the N3 contract is also problematic, he added. “Like all large, monolithic contracts they often look good from outset when you bundle lots of services together.

"But more often than not, when you get further down the line, those prices don't looks so good – and you are tied into very large contract that is difficult to flex and get out of.”

Clark said the HSCIC was looking towards a disaggregated service model for HSCN, rather than one large provider.

“Those days are kind of over. It's recognised that those things don't deliver best value. They don't deliver the flexibility that we need.”

He said this approach will help the HSCIC cope with the March 2017 deadline to exit the N3 contract, as it can take apart the N3 provision bit-by-bit rather than doing a large-scale replacement.

“We are deconstructing what's already there. We can start to do that now.”

Clark said that the next step now the outline business case has been approved is to get formal approval from the Cabinet Office, which is expected by the end of this month.

In the meantime, the HSCIC will begin consulting on the standards and policies in the HSCN.

“We want to do that in a collaborative way and check what we are doing is not making it too onerous for industry or consumers.”

The HSCIC is also putting together requirements in preparation for going out to procurement and initial procurements are expected to start in early 2016.